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 BEREA, Ohio (AP) -Across a crowded banquet room filled with some of Cleveland's biggest sports celebrities, Pittsburgh Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, a Hall of Famer himself, stood at the dais and singled out the one person he wanted to meet.
Joe Thomas was caught off guard.
``That was pretty cool,'' Cleveland's left tackle said Wednesday. ``I didn't expect it. I was kind of surprised.''
It may be the only time Thomas has been shocked by anything all season.
The No. 3 overall pick in this year's draft, Thomas has quickly established himself as one of the game's top offensive lineman. On Tuesday, the former Wisconsin All-American who skipped an invitation to New York on draft day so he could go fishing with his dad and friends, was named a Pro Bowl alternate.
It's a rare nod for a rookie, especially one playing one of the NFL's most demanding positions.
Thomas, though, isn't your typical rookie. He's no average Joe.
From the moment he walked through the doors at Browns' headquarters, Thomas has acted like a seasoned pro on the field and off it.
During the team's first mini-camp in May, center Hank Fraley was initially struck by Thomas' attention to detail and how hard he studied film and the Browns' thick playbook. Fraley, however, reserved final judgment until he saw how the 6-foot-6, 315-pound Thomas performed with pads on.
Suffice to say, he passed the test.
``You're like, man, he's not a real rookie,'' Fraley said. ``If you didn't know who he was and somebody just told you he was drafted this year, you'd think he'd been playing for a few years.''
While he came in more polished then a typical rookie, Thomas has benefited from playing alongside guard Eric Steinbach, who in his first season with Cleveland, has helped transform the Browns' offensive line from a constant worry to a strength.
Like Fraley, Steinbach, also named a Pro Bowl alternate for a trip to Honolulu, had his doubts about Thomas.
``I thought, 'OK, this guy had a great college career','' he said. ``You do see some college guys have great careers and then come in the NFL and not pan out. I knew right away Joe was a guy who was going to pan out for the next 10 or 12 years and be one of those long-term, great left tackles.''
Jamal Lewis knows one already.
Lewis played in Baltimore for seven seasons with man-giant Jonathan Ogden, the Ravens' left tackle just named to his 11th straight Pro Bowl. Basing his evaluation on 14 games, Lewis feels Thomas has the potential to be just as good as his former teammate, a certain future Hall of Famer.
``Jonathan Ogden is a great player, they have pretty much the same body type, same build,'' Lewis said. ``I think he (Thomas) is that next Jonathan Ogden.''
Unlike the 6-foot-9, 345-pound Ogden, Thomas doesn't merely overpower opponents with size and strength. He's more of a technician, relying on his speed, range and footwork to shield off defenders while protecting quarterback Derek Anderson's blind side.
The Browns' offensive line has allowed just 17 sacks - tied for second fewest in the league - and Thomas has yet to give up a sack in passing situations where he's been one-on-one with a rusher.
``Joe has answered every challenge, every week,'' Steinbach said.
Back in April's draft, the Browns were faced with a dilemma. Picking third overall, they could have gone another direction and chosen running back Adrian Peterson or quarterback Brady Quinn, whom they later traded back into the first round to get.
But with its first selection Cleveland nabbed Thomas to be its cornerstone up front, and the 23-year-old has disappointed.
If not for Peterson's gaudy numbers with Minnesota, Thomas might be the league's rookie of the year.
``Joe's just special,'' Fraley said. ``I'm working on being his agent for his next deal.''
While he may be getting more attention because of the Browns' surprising season, Thomas remains grounded. He didn't take not making the Pro Bowl as a starter as a snub. He knows his time will come.
``One of my goals coming in was to go to the Pro Bowl and be a Hall of Famer,'' he said. ``Once you gain that reputation, those kinds of things happen.''
Steinbach noticed special qualities about Thomas the first time they met.
``You could tell by his demeanor. He didn't walk in and act like he was the third pick,'' Steinbach recalled. ``He's a very humble guy, a good, blue-collar guy who came up from Wisconsin so you knew he was going to handle it well.''
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